In rural southern Iowa, the town of Leon is home to 2,000 people, a popular annual rodeo, and a school system that has emerged as a beacon of teacher leadership.
Under Superintendent Chris Coffelt, Leon’s public schools—known as the Central Decatur Community School District—set out in 2012 with a multi-faceted plan to recruit and retain teachers and improve student achievement under some especially challenging circumstances.
In a small, economically vulnerable area, such a plan requires vision and determined leadership.
Coffelt, a forward-thinking local who is deeply invested in the community, has by all accounts brought both, even as he has divided his time heading up Central Decatur and another smaller district nearby.
The challenges, he admits, are many: 65 percent of Central Decatur’s 750 students are low-income, receiving free and reduced-price meals. There are few resources in the area for low-income families that are not provided by the schools.
Leon, which sits about an hour south of Des Moines, is not an easy sell to prospective teaching talent, despite the miles of nature trails and lakes. Holding onto teachers when larger cities and bigger salaries beckon has also been difficult.
But, over the last four years, Central Decatur has made major strides in improving its teacher workforce and has become a destination for educators from across Iowa who want to learn from the district’s work.
And after years of struggling to meet academic goals set by the state, the district has seen student achievement improve in certain measures—almost all grade levels showed positive growth in reading and math on 2015-16 state tests.
Coffelt, 46, says the district is on track to accomplish the first of two major goals that he set: that every student would make a year or more of academic progress annually. A second goal—narrowing achievement gaps between poor students and their more affluent peers—has proven harder to reach.
Putting the District on the Map
Still, observers say, the district’s culture has changed significantly, and that would not have happened if not for Coffelt’s refusal to settle for the status quo. He has a lot of big plans for the district that he works tirelessly to accomplish—whether that’s through spearheading new initiatives or spreading the message of teacher leadership to state policymakers and superintendents across Iowa.
His colleagues call him a go-getter, and say that he has been instrumental in putting the small district on the map.
But Coffelt is quick to credit his team—which he addresses as “family”—with the success so far, and with any progress still to come.
“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to because people are working together to find out what the problem is,” Coffelt says. “We’re not where we want to be yet. We want to have higher levels of success for our kids, we want more of our students to be measured as proficient as readers, writers, and in math as well.”
But, he says, “If we stick to the plan and continue to execute that plan, it’s going to get us to where we want to be—every one of our kids experiencing success.”
The centerpiece of Coffelt’s work has been TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Achievement. Central Decatur is one of two districts in Iowa implementing this system through a $9.5 million federal grant in partnership with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.
The system has four components to improve teacher effectiveness: continual professional development, multiple career paths, an observation-based evaluation system, and performance-based compensation.
‘Energizing and Supporting’ Teachers
Central Decatur began implementing the system in the 2013-14 school year after an initial year of study, and after 90 percent of the district’s staff voted to move forward with the system. Coffelt says it has been exciting to see his team of educators develop a shared vision of what effective teaching looks like. Coffelt is also the superintendent of the nearby Lamoni Community Schools, a 360-student district five miles from the Missouri border which faces similar challenges.
“I think we’ve always had good things happen in pockets, but it hasn’t been systemic throughout our district,” says Coffelt, the son of two teachers who grew up in Decatur County, left to teach in Missouri and Puerto Rico, and returned to his home to be an elementary principal. After three years in that role, he became superintendent, a job he’s had for eight years.
Now, Coffelt coordinates quarterly district leadership team meetings and meets with teacher leaders from the district’s three schools on a monthly basis to help them develop skills to work with adult learners.
“I can support teacher leaders in the same way they support teachers,” he says.
There are also weekly grade-level meetings for teachers to come together to look at students’ work and discuss their learning.
“We never had that before—there was never that avenue for support or reflection or refinement,” Coffelt says. “Now it’s just a part of who we are and how we do business on a weekly basis. Our classrooms and classroom teachers are no longer isolated. They feel energized and supported.”
Central Decatur, located just north of the Missouri stateline, is in one of the most geographically isolated parts of Iowa, and the district has continually struggled to find qualified teachers. In 2012, the district had to bring a science teacher out of retirement to fill a vacant position.
Nowadays, new teachers aren’t necessarily flocking to the district, Coffelt says, but the district receives more candidates who are aware of—and attracted by—the teacher-leadership work. District hiring officials tout the robust support that helps rookie educators avoid feeling like they are alone in their classrooms.
The TAP system is a major selling point, Coffelt says: “Look at teachers brand new to the profession, who are coming out of college. You’re not just coming into a classroom and maybe being supported—you’ll be supported on a weekly basis. [Experienced teachers] will model a lesson for you, observe your lesson, and reflect [with you] afterwards. … We can provide a higher level of support for new teachers than what we’ve ever done before.”
Retaining teachers has improved, too.
“People feel supported, and I think when people feel supported, they don’t experience burnout—they stay longer,” Coffelt says.
Igor Takacs, the president of Central Decatur’s board of education, says he has noticed a shift in teacher satisfaction since the TAP system was implemented. “I always thought that teachers were like nomads—they come in and work for a few years and then leave,” he says. “So far, they’ve kind of stayed here.”
Each Central Decatur teacher receives four observations a year. Teachers can earn performance bonuses based on their classroom observation scores, their students’ growth scores, and a schoolwide growth score.
Teachers in the TAP system can apply to two formal leadership roles: master and mentor teachers. To varying degrees, those teachers provide peer coaching, conduct evaluations and observations, and help implement curriculum.
Tricia Applegate, who has been teaching in the district for 16 years, is now a master teacher in the junior-senior high school.
“We are much more focused on common goals together,” she says. “In the past, teachers were often siloed into their rooms. There wasn’t another person to connect with. … [The program] really brought teachers together.”
Developing Capacity for STEM
The focus of Central Decatur’s grant has been on strengthening their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics teaching staff.
“First, we’re going to develop people,” Coffelt says. “Our work was never about implementing a program, never about getting the right textbook. It was about investing in people and developing that capacity.”
Indeed, Coffelt says that ever since teachers began collaborating more across departments, there has been more project-based, inquiry-based instruction.
In Central Decatur, increasing opportunities for STEM learning has been centered in the district’s agriculture program. Coffelt says teachers work to show students that agriculture is “more than just sitting in a tractor and farming”—they draw connections to technology and science.
“A lot of our kids have had their eyes opened,” Coffelt says.
The district has partnered with Graceland University on professional development for teachers on effective practices in STEM, and support on how to implement the coursework in the classroom, Coffelt says.
Our classrooms and classroom teachers are no longer isolated. They feel energized and supported.
Central Decatur is in its last year of the federal grant, but the teacher-leadership work will continue with state funding, Coffelt says. He’s also planning to develop a similar teacher-leadership system in Lamoni, the other district he leads.
In the 2014-15 school year, Iowa began its three-year implementation of the Teacher Leadership and Compensation System. The state has since allocated $150 million a year to the initiative, and all 333 school districts have agreed to participate.
Leaders from Central Decatur and the Saydel school district, which also received a federal grant to implement the TAP system, were consulted by state policymakers and superintendents for advice on building the teacher-leadership infrastructure.
“Central Decatur served as an outstanding example as a pioneer in teacher leadership that helped the rest of the state understand what a teacher leadership system could do,” says Linda Fandel, the special assistant for education to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
Takacs, the school board president, says Coffelt’s years-long commitment to the school district and his ambition to improve and build up the educator workforce has made a lasting impact.
Coffelt has also spearheaded physical improvements for the district, like a new athletic complex and a bus barn.
“We’re a small school district in a depressed area, it’s hard to keep good superintendents,” Takac says. “He’s taken the bull by the horns, he really gets things done. He’s kind of brought [the district] out from the doldrums—it’s really vibrant.”